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What is a Thesaurus?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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Once you really get to know a language, you come to understand that synonyms don’t have exactly the same meaning. For the writer or speaker, particular rather than general words can help focus your discussion. For the poet or lyricist, choosing evocative words can help you involve your audience. And in the business world, choosing precise words can help you to express the exact meaning you wish to communicate in a way that precisely fits the situation, whether your aim is to explain, persuade, or promote.

A thesaurus is designed to help users with exact and nuanced word choice. Thesauruses usually have one of two organizational principles: either they’re organized alphabetically, in what is called dictionary form, or thematically, so that words with similar meanings are grouped together. So these are the two starting points.

Once you locate the first entry word to begin your search, you’ll find a great range of options from which to select the word best-suited to your purpose. Most thesauruses simply lists the synonyms and/or antonyms, and you may find that you need to do several thesaurus searches and possibly resort to a dictionary to make sure that your choice really fits.

If your thesaurus supplies additional information, such as part of speech and definition, all the better: you may be able to do your task with just the one reference. Less frequently found, but also helpful, are sample phrases, clauses, or sentences. And sometimes you can even find usage notes.

There are a few thesauruses that are adapted for different uses. There are esoteric thesauruses and student thesauruses, and you may find one of those suits your purposes more than the “standard” thesaurus. In addition, at least one writer has prepared a slang thesaurus.

But whichever type of thesaurus you use as a reference tool, choosing is still something that is, in the end, up to you. Because, while it’s true, for example, that frumpy and superannuated are synonyms, that doesn’t make them interchangeable!

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

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Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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